Thursday, April 30, 2009

Day 6 in Scotland

My last day as a tourist I decided to go for the ocean. Specifically, I decided to take the ferry to the Isle of Bute. This was a great little trip--despite the wind that was kicking up on the top deck. (I think it was just me and a guy walking his dog up there--the rest of the ferrygoers had more sense.)

The island itself is compact, and consists of quite a few hotels with an ocean view along a winding road. But I was here to check out another castle within walking distance of the ferry landing: Rothesay castle. Rothesay is about 800 years old and a classic. Moat, check. Round towers at the corner, check. Imposing square gatehouse tower with drawbridge, check. Attacked by Vikings, check, check.

There's no audio tour, but some of the rooms inside have been turned into a museum, and there was more than enough information inside to get a sense of the history. This was built by the Steward to the king. The family name morphed to Stewart over the ages, and later became the Stewart line of kings. It was the lynchpin in the defense of Western Scotland against the Norse in the 13th century, and later on saw action during the Scottish Wars of Independence.

After seeing the castle and a chapel dating back to the first millenium, I returned on the ferry to the mainland. I drove south along the coast then to my final stop of the trip, Culzean Castle. Unfortunately, weather had caused some damage, and the castle was closed for the day. Still, there were great views of the ocean from the ramparts.

This was a much different castle than Rothesay. Culzean was built in the 1700's and was an extension of a manor house. So it lacked the primary focus on defense, and concentrated more on looking pretty. Which I have to say, it is lovely, even as the rain clouds rolled in and out.

That was my trip to Scotland! It's a great place-full of history and ruins, as well as breathtaking scenery. Plus you can drive from one end to the other in a day or two! Next stop, Denmark...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Day 5 in Scotland

The next day I took the bus back to the airport (very cheap from Ediburgh--about six pounds) and rented another car. This time I was heading to the lowlands, still hilly, but with a markedly different character than the area around Loch Ness.

First stop was Rosslyn Chapel, just south of Ediburgh. This is a small chapel covered with intricate carvings, many of which are linked to symbols from the Knights Templar. Very few tourist attractions can claim to have been transformed by a book. As the ending for the search for the Holy Grail in The Da Vinci Code, Rosslyn has become a bustling little landmark. The good news (according to the tour guide) is that they are five years ahead of their fundraising schedule due to the order of magnitude jump in visitors. The bad news is that the limestone carvings are in danger: unless the swell in tourists subsides, they might even have to limit the number of people coming into the chapel each year.

While heading to the south, I stopped at the Loch o' the Lowes to have some lunch. The area is far less green that the lochs farther north, but still a nice place to take a walk and admire the everpresent flocks of sheep.

The end of the day found me in the south of the country at Caerlaverock Castle. This castle dates back to the 13th century, and still has a water filled moat. On the grounds is also a working trebuchet. The castle belonged to a Catholic family, the Maxwells. Being on the border with England, it saw quite a bit of action, finally being abandoned in the 1600's after Protestant forces destroyed the south wall.

If touring the history of Scotland has taught me anything, it's an appreciation for the separation of church and state and the simple idea that multiple religions can exist peaceably in the same culture. For me that ranks pretty high on the list of good ideas that I wish would catch on worldwide.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Day 4 (Afternoon) in Scotland

For my last afternoon in Edinburgh, I headed toward the museums and galleries.

The National Museum of Scotland is everything that you hope for in a museum--uncluttered but comprehensive, innovative, and just full of surprises. There are smaller rooms showcasing artifacts from prehistory days up to the present, like the Bute Mazer, a communal drinking cup. The shields surrounding the lion are thought to represent Robert the Bruce and his close comrades.

There are also large airy spaces enclosing giant machines such as some early automated looms, a two story tall machine for digging mines, and enormous copper tubs and tubing for whiskey distillation. Plus I learned that Scotland had its own version of the guillotine, called "The Maiden".

You can go up on the rooftop at the National Museum, which gives great views of Edinburgh castle and the Royal Mile. For my last stop I headed over to the National Gallery (open late on Thursdays!) to check out the collection. This is a wonderful gallery, full of the 16th and 17th century paintings I love so much. And like the National Museum, all of the Gallery buildings are free!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

End of classes

This Wednesday marked the end of graduate classes at Duke (well, plus Thursday for a snow day.) Naturally, I always view the end of classes with great optimism: now I'll finally catch up on everything I planned to do a month ago (like finishing my dispatches from Scotland before I forget entirely what I did.)

In fact, I have an even more ambitious goal that catching up on my blog: finish four papers by mid-summer, when I'll have to begin moving. Yep, that's right, for those who haven't heard I am now once again officially gainfully employed. This fall I'll be starting at Claremont-McKenna College, back in Claremont, CA.

I'm looking forward to being at CMC, but glancing around my apartment, I'm not so much looking forward to moving, a whole different prospect. I could pretend to myself that it's an opportunity to take stock of what things are actually important to me in my life, but of course its really just a pain to wade through piles of old clothes and junk. Still, it's hard not to enjoy the Spring weather in Durham with the gorgeous flowers everywhere. Ah, packing can wait!